Interview: Mattie Do, Laos’ First Female Director, Talks Asian Objectification and Her New Horror Film, Dearest Sister
Have you heard of Mattie Do? She’s a badass filmmaker who started out as a ballerina and became the first female director from Laos with her feature debut, Chanthaly—the first horror film written and spoken entirely in Lao. Born in Los Angeles but currently living and working in the Southeast Asian country, Do offers up a unique perspective on the the industry since, much like Ava DuVernay, she never went to film school.
I had the chance to speak with her about her second film, Dearest Sister, which also happens to be a horror and has garnered a lot of attention on the film festival circuit. The story centers on a girl who tries to escape indentured poverty by manipulating her wealthy cousin’s illness. Do touched on a number of things like her desire to subvert Asian objectification by presenting strong female characters, the censorship process for her films and whether or not she’d director a Star Wars film.
The Mary Sue: Has there not been another female director from Laos since you started?
Mattie Do: I’ve seen a couple young girls but in general filmmaking, they’ve fallen into departments like…I have an excellent line producer which I’ve trained and she’s very much administrative. I have another young girl who feels very comfortable in the costume and wardrobe department. But then, everyone else is just…I don’t know. There are some young girls that I’ve spoken to and helped before, but they’re doing short films. I think feature films are really daunting for a lot of people still. That’s just something I never thought about, because I didn’t know better, so I just went right into feature film.
TMS: You had no formal training and learned a lot while on the job. What are some of the growing pains of jumping in like that?
MD: It is rough sometimes. When I see other people doing amazing work, and I’m just like, I don’t even know how to go about executing something like that. But at the same time, it’s been really great to not have any expectations of how I’m supposed to do something, because no one’s taught me that “Oh, you shouldn’t do this. It’s too difficult,” or “That’s a really advanced skill,” or “These are rules that you need to keep.” I never learned that, and so I have just been able to jump in head first, not having to worry about what’s difficult. I think [that’s] really helpful, because I don’t get scared or intimidated to approach material.
But I think one of the most difficult things is I lack a lot of respect from some of my peers. I don’t mean in the industry, per say, but I mean locally. Certain people are like, why do I deserve to make film? I didn’t go to school. I didn’t start out with any of the dreams or desires. I mean, my dream was to one day wear a tutu and tiara, and now I’m behind the camera. So there is a lot of “she doesn’t deserve to be a filmmaker,” or I’m a novelty. When I made my first film, there were people who thought it was cute. Like, “Oh that’s cute. You think you’re a filmmaker.” They really expected for me to go nowhere and, honestly, I didn’t know if my film was going to go anywhere either. But it was really shocking not only to myself, but to a lot of other people to see my first film and now my second being seen in different places.
TMS: Why did you choose the horror genre?
MD: I love horror! I was a ballerina, and most of our stories are horror. I don’t think a lot of people realize that, but most of our classical ballets are all horror films. The most famous ballet is Swan Lake—she’s a freaking werewolf! The light of the full moon comes out and she turns into a human and then when the full moon goes away she turns into a swan…The best part of making those stories is [that] fear is so universal. Even love is not a universal feeling. When I watch an Indian film that’s a romance or a film about a couple falling in love, it’s very cultural and in some ways exclusive where I’m like “That’s not how I fall in love. I don’t have a story about arranged marriages.” And then I watch an American film and I’m like, “who the heck falls in love like that? These people don’t even know each other.” So even romance is not that universal.
But fear, everyone knows how to feel afraid. Everyone gets terrified in the dark. I think that that’s really interesting. Also, my first film, I had a lot of censorship from the government in the story and when I made genre film, the government was a lot more lenient in a way, because they were just like “Well, it’s genre. It’s horror. It’s so fictional that perhaps the audience won’t notice so much the social…” I [write] pretty scathing social commentary, and their hope was “It’s fiction so maybe people won’t take it so seriously and they can decide for themselves to watch it as just a horror film or to watch it as a pretty serious film that dissects our society.”
TMS: Do you receive serious doubts from men or women or both?
MD: It’s both. One thing I have to admit that’s really progressive about the Laos Board of Censorship for the Department of Cinema is they have both men and women. At the censorship hearings, I’ve had equally men and women watching the film and making comments and notes on the film and that is very progressive of them. But I think they have to present themselves as relatively unified when they make the decision. I think it’s one of the few departments in Laos that has an equal representation of men and women and it’s pretty’s great because I feel like I can speak to them about the issues in my film more openly.
TMS: Can you talk a little about your push to bring more women into film?
MD: When I first watched Laos films and when I first started making making Laos films, I noticed right away that there is a huge lack of women in film. I didn’t realize at the time that it was an issue that the rest of the world was facing, too, because I wasn’t involved in film. I don’t read the news about film. I actually didn’t watch very many films before I started attending film festivals because I was always in the ballet studio training. I came here to Laos to be with my father, and when the opportunity presented [itself], my husband said what kind of story do you wanna tell, and I said a ghost story…And I was watching all these other films from Laos to research, and I realized the women were super non-human. They were just an object for a man’s desire, or a girl that was meant to stand there and cry.
They had almost no character arc besides being the thing that cries and gets loved and breastfed by a man and I think that women in Laos aren’t like that. They really aren’t. In fact, women here can be very strong and passionate and powerful, even though there’s this cultural representation that they’re meek and mild and submissive. From what I know inside of a Laos family, that’s actually not the case. It’s more like an image that people want to promote and want to push, but it’s not authentic or truthful. And secondly, I want to show women as they are in Laos. The way they really feel, think, act, behave. The way they sometimes make mistakes. The way they are very passionate about their choices and the way they sometimes feel trapped by this national identity or the familial identity. And so we did it. I didn’t know at the time that it was completely unique.
TMS: It does fight against the stereotypes that you often hear in the media, and we don’t often get to see the flipside of that.
MD: I think Dear Sister addresses that objectification of Asian women and Asian wives a lot because it’s a common perception that the rest of the world has…of a white man marrying an Asian woman. Even the main character is conflicted by that objectification often.
TMS: Both of your films deal with close familial relationships. Was that intentional?
MD: That was definitely very intentional for me when I started making both films. From the outside, a lot of people have that objectification of Asian culture. We have this oriental…that exoticism, right? But from the inside, as an Asian person making this film, sometimes there’s this idea that I have to do a certain kind of film so that people will be interested. I have to make a certain kind of portrayal of women or men or love, something that people are familiar with, so it’ll sell tickets or gain interest from other people. It’s almost like they’ve created a boundary for themselves, but I have this opportunity as a person who’s both a Westerner and a Laos person to be able to show people what I see and what I perceive and what maybe Westerners don’t always understand as someone from the outside looking in.
Would you do a film like Star Wars if the opportunity presented itself?
Oh my god! Of course I would! That’d be amazing, but how in the world are they ever going to notice me? I’m so far out of the realm of Hollywood. Like, Hollywood is a distant, unattainable thing to me here in Laos. I wanna do all kinds of film. I want to do every kind of film that I can possibly do. I have these wild dreams that I’ll do like an Italian cannibal film, or that I’ll do like an amazing Laos film that takes place in Europe…or an American film.
What are you working on next?
The next film that I’ve already started development on is called The Long Walk, and it’s freaking crazy. It’s a time travel serial killer film that takes place in rural Laos. It’s a really intense dark thriller.
Dearest Sister is now available exclusively on AMC’s horror streaming service Shudder.
(images via Shudder)
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